All-American Anthony Barr will return in '13
With the 2012 season in the books for the UCLA Bruins, it's never too early to look ahead and see where the defense will stack up for the upcoming season.
The Bruins will graduate multiple seniors from a starting unit that was ranked 73rd in total defense this past year. Despite losing the likes of Sheldon Price, Andrew Abbott, Aaron Hester and Datone Jones, the defense should be better next year.
An incorporation of younger, more talented prospects will ensue, and Bruins fans rejoiced with the word that second-team All-American Anthony Barr elected to return for his senior season.
Depth at some positions is a bit thin, and that's expected to be filled via recruiting in this current cycle.
Here is a preliminary look at the depth chart for the upcoming season on the defensive side of the ball.
Cassius Marsh returns for a senior season.
The one graduating member of the defensive line that will be missed is Datone Jones.
Jones has been a lynchpin on the defensive line for multiple seasons. He had a breakout year of sorts in 2012, accruing 6.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss.
Fortunately for the Bruins, Jones' spot will be filled by former 5-star recruit Owamagbe Odighizuwa. The junior from Portland, Ore. displayed flashes of his vast potential throughout his first two years in the program but was never a consistent player. In 2012, he took the next step as a player and played a prominent role for the team.
Easily the most athletic member of the defensive line, he was quite disruptive off the edge. As he continues to get more polished, his potential upside should be limitless. Expect a big senior campaign for "Owa."
Two returning starters for the Bruins include senior defensive end Cassius Marsh and senior nose guard Seali'i Epenesa.
Epenesa plays at a position that doesn't put up gaudy stats. However, his ability to hold double-teams and keep his ground would help in freeing up pass-rushers. His value as a cog in the middle cannot be understated.
Marsh had a solid junior season, in which he was second on the team with 8.0 sacks. Always being an active player, the Simi Valley, Calif. native seemingly has put together everything from a mental aspect and should be in line for an even bigger senior year.
Willis could offer depth at DE.
There are a couple of interesting players on the second unit of the defensive front.
At end, expect Ellis McCarthy, former UNC transfer Brandon Willis and freshman Jeremy Castro to see time.
McCarthy was the 5-star all-everything recruit from a year ago. Due to a knee issue in the spring, he was never fully conditioned from a stamina standpoint. He did see limited time this year, but it was apparent that he needs to lose weight in order to be effective. McCarthy underwent a minor knee procedure after the season ended, but he should be fine to go when spring ball begins.
A healthy McCarthy would be a boon for UCLA. He's innately the most talented member of the reserves by a long margin and has the ability to play both at end and at nose guard.
Willis was slated to be the starting nose guard before the 2012 season began, but he never could maintain the requisite weight needed to play the position, and as a result, he didn't see too much time. He's a talented guy, but lacks experience.
A big wild card in the equation is freshman Jeremy Castro. Castro had academic problems, which prevented him from joining the team until recently. Although technically a member of the 2012 recruiting class, he'll enroll in January and participate in spring ball.
Based on his reputation from high school, he's an animal off of the edge and has the ability to play both as an outside backer and as a defensive end. Another very talented kid, his ability to play in 2013 will likely hinge on his conditioning, and on his ability to comprehend the defense.
Nate Iese might be another option at defensive end as well. He's got tremendous athleticism and overall speed. However, he could be transitioning full time to the offensive side of the ball as a tight end.
Both Brandon Tuliaupupu and Kenneth Carter will vie to be the backup to Epenesa. Tuliaupupu is a mountain of a man at 6'1", 315 pounds, while Carter is a highly regarded 4-star recruit.
*UCLA is in a battle for two very good defensive line prospects. If they are able to land either of the recruits, both could figure heavily into the mix.
"Owa" will now be a starter
Left Defensive End
Owa Odighizuwa: 6'3", 275; SR
Jeremy Castro: 6'2", 255; FR
Eli Ankou: 6'3", 284; RS FR
Seali'i Epenesa: 6'1", 310; SR
Brandon Tuliaupupu: 6'1", 315; RS SO
Kenneth Clark: 6'2", 290; FR
Right Defensive End
Cassius Marsh: 6'3", 275; SR
Ellis McCarthy: 6'5", 330; SO
Brandon Willis: 6'2", 280; JR
Anthony Barr taking down Matt Barkley.
The best bit of news UCLA could have received was the promise that Anthony Barr will be returning to school.
It's absolutely astounding to comprehend Barr's transition from a little used tight end in the Pistol offense under Rick Neuheisel, to a AP Second Team All-American outside linebacker.
Barr was second in the nation with 13.5 sacks on the season, and also led the team with 21.5 tackles-for-loss. He was an absolute nightmare off of the edge—utilizing his insane quickness coupled with a long frame and surprising motor.
Aside from Barr, UCLA will also bring back stalwarts Jordan Zumwalt and Eric Kendricks.
Zumwalt has played at both inside and outside 'backer during his career, but looks like he'll be settling in the inside for his senior season. Like Barr, he has next level potential, and above-average athleticism for the position.
After starting the 2012 season a bit slow, Kendricks came on as a player and was a force. He led the entire Pac-12 conference in tackles with a startling 151 on the season. That comes out to a 10.79 tackles/per game average. He truly plays like his hair is on fire, and is all over the field.
The Bruins will take a bit of a blow at the other outside linebacker position, as they lose Damien Holmes to graduation. Holmes has been somewhat maligned during his UCLA career, but he performed admirably from a rush position—as he was credited with 5.5 sacks this season.
Look for redshirt senior Keenan Graham to possibly fill in for the vacancy. If not Graham, UCLA has two extremely talented commitments in Myles Jack and Deon Hollins Jr. that could fill the void right off the bat as well.
Wallace will provide depth at the OLB spot.
There's a precipitous fall in terms of overall talent from the starting unit to the reserves.
There are some potentially talented prospects in the reserves corps, but there's not a ton of experience. Both Jack and Hollins are in line to see action as true freshmen. Jack is a physical specimen that can play both inside and outside, while Hollins is more of a rusher off the edge with his tremendous speed.
Assuming that UCLA can hold onto both when signing day comes, each figure to at minimum play on special teams.
The Bruins will welcome middle 'backer Isaiah Bowens back this season. Bowens missed 2012 with a torn ACL but has proved he can be a solid contributor in a reserve role.
Ryan Hofmeister is another player that's seen time this season. While he's an intelligent player, he lacks the overall size for the position to truly make a big impact. He could be a guy that's passed over by younger, more talented players.
Kenny Orjioke is a long athlete with crazy athleticism. However, he's very raw for the position, so it could be some time before he makes an impact.
Aaron Porter is a former 4-star recruit with the potential to play right away. He didn't set the proverbial world on fire during this past year, so it's unknown as to how he'll figure into the depth chart.
Aaron Wallace is the most athletic member of the unit. He got some minutes this past year as a redshirt freshman and did pretty well. While he won't see a ton of time behind Barr, he'll still provide a solid option off the bench.
*UCLA is heavily involved with Hawaiian linebacker Isaac Savaiinaea. The 4-star prospect is down to UCLA and Texas A&M currently, and could make his decision soon. If he were to come to Westwood, he could figure prominently as a backup to either Zumwalt or Kendricks.
*Cameron Judge is another linebacker currently committed to UCLA. Although highly regarded, he'll most likely redshirt.
Kendricks forcing a fumble in the Holiday Bowl.
Left Outside 'Backer
Keenan Graham: 6'2", 247; RS SR
Kenny Orjioke: 6'4", 220; SO; or Myles Jack: 6'3", 230; FR
Eric Kendricks: 6'0", 235; RS JR
Ryan Hofmeister: 6'0", 225; RS SO
Aaron Porter: 6'1", 230; RS FR
Jordan Zumwalt: 6'3", 235; SR
Isaiah Bowens: 6'1", 240; RS SR
Right Outside 'Backer
Anthony Barr: 6'4", 240; SR
Aaron Wallace: 6'3", 230; RS SO
Deon Hollins: 6'2", 225; FR
Goforth should start somewhere in the secondary.
The secondary will be a big question mark in this upcoming season.
UCLA loses not only two four-year starters in Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester, but also the team's defensive captain and perhaps most cerebral player in safety Andrew Abbott.
Price and Hester have been plagued by inconsistency throughout their careers as Bruins. While the loss of experience will be an issue, UCLA should be able to replace both starting corners with younger, more talented options.
Tevin McDonald returns as the starter at free safety. However, he's coming off of a pretty poor year—which culminated in McDonald being suspended for the Holiday Bowl due to a violation of team rules. He needs to have a bounce-back year, in large part because he'll be the most experienced returner to a very young and shallow secondary unit.
Ironically, true freshman Randall Goforth was arguably the most consistent member of the secondary this season. The Long Beach Poly product was always around the ball, and wasn't afraid to come up and lay the wood. He also demonstrated lots of maturity and a high football I.Q. for a true freshman.
He has the ability to play both at safety and at cornerback, but much of where he starts will hinge upon how well UCLA recruits, and the health of Ishmael Adams.
Adams was a much ballyhooed recruit from Oaks Christian High School. He was slated to be the team's starting nickelback before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in September. Adams should be completely healed for spring ball and could be in line to snag a starting spot.
The other freshman corner—Marcus Rios—saw a bit of time this year. He's a long and fast athlete but has a slight frame that makes it difficult for him to play with any physicality. The strength and conditioning program will be vital for him in the new year. He has all the tools to play but needs to get stronger.
Riley should see time this year.
There's no question that depth in the secondary is a major issue. UCLA's ability to recruit for the 2013 class will go a long way in determining the depth chart for not only the reserves, but for the starters as well.
The prevailing notion is that UCLA is doing pretty well for safeties Priest Willis and Tahaan Goodman. Should both come to Westwood, it will give the Bruins two potential starters from the day Goodman and Willis step on campus.
Both are truly that good.
Cornerback Johnny Johnson is another player that UCLA would love to land. He'd also factor in right away should he choose to become a Bruin.
UCLA likes to employ a hybrid safety/linebacker during nickel formations. In essence, it's a bigger safety that can be up in the box and make plays at the line of scrimmage. Dalton Hilliard will be graduating, and filling in for that spot will be Stan McKay.
For that hybrid position, keep an eye on Dietrich Riley. A former big-time recruit, Riley suffered a scary neck injury that has kept him out of action for two seasons. Finally cleared to participate in football activities, he could provide a boost to the secondary. Assuming that he can revert back to the form that he was showing pre-injury, Riley could figure into things.
Redshirt freshman Taylor Lagace and redshirt junior Anthony Jefferson will add depth at safety, while Fabian Moreau will play at corner. Moreau is one of the fastest members of the team but is still learning the position after switching over from offense.
Safety Tevin McDonald
*This is the hardest unit to predict. Surely, UCLA will sign some secondary members that will play next season. For the sake of this piece, only members of the team and current commits will figure into this preliminary depth chart.
Ishmael Adams: 5'8", 186; RS FR
Fabian Moreau: 6'0", 180; SO
Randall Goforth: 5'10", 175; SO
Taylor Lagace: 6'1", 205; RS FR
Tevin McDonald: 5'11", 185; RS JR
Anthony Jefferson: 6'1", 185; RS JR
Marcus Rios: 6'0", 185; SO
Justin Combs: 5'7", 165; RS FR
Anthony Barr should be a terror yet again.
In 2013, the UCLA defense will be undoubtedly buoyed by the front seven.
The Bruins' entire defensive line will be seniors, and the linebacker corps will have three very experienced members. From a talent and production standpoint, it's not out of the question to believe that UCLA's front seven will be one of the best in the conference next year.
Two massive question marks come in the form of the secondary, and also in overall depth throughout the defense.
UCLA will be replying on inexperienced players at cornerback (and quite possibly at safety). While the experience of Price and Hester is a blow, the players replacing the aforementioned duo are truthfully going to be more talented.
One could envision a scenario in which teams will try to beat UCLA through the air. Regardless, expect the Bruins to take a big leap up defensively next season. The starting lineup will possess upward of five guys that can play at the next level, including one in Barr that has the potential to be a top-10 draft pick.